Adam’s Rib

Zachary Sauer

Directed by George Cukor, the romantic dramedy Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey as wife and husband attorneys Amanda and Adam Bonner, explores the social complexities of marriage through the lens of gender identity and difference. [1] As the Bonners argue opposing sides of a violent domestic case in the courtroom, the gender politics of their private lives become increasingly contentious. Featuring set decoration by Edwin B. Willis, the film shows that each day in court is followed by an evening at the couple’s Uptown apartment, which is replete with pre-war molding, dark wood furniture, traditional floral armchairs, and a set of dramatic striped curtains that frame the couple’s bedroom window. The interior design of the couple’s space represents the domestic harmony that is called into question throughout the film and helps to frame their final, climactic disagreement. 

Willis worked with Dorothy Liebes to produce window blinds and metallic upholstery for the living room of the Bonners’s neighbor and romantic obstacle, Kip Laurie, juxtaposing the classic decor of the Bonner apartment with Liebes’s modernist sophistication (Fig. 1). Much to Adam’s chagrin, the charming “lounge lizard” Laurie pursues Amanda throughout the film, wooing her through song and seizing every opportunity to cast Adam as an inadequate partner. The Liebes textiles used for Laurie’s apartment reflect the sophistication associated with Laurie’s character, with Liebes’s brilliant metallic window treatments and ottoman cushions reminiscent of the urban lounge spaces with which her work was associated such as the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel (Fig. 2). Contrasting sharply with the couple’s more conventional space, Liebes’s “total textile experience” [2] sets the tone for Amanda’s characterization as a liberated, modern woman and provides a meaningful backdrop for her to assume the role of the unfaithful spouse as the Bonners farcically reenact the scenario they have argued in court in their personal lives.

The film begins with the long-suffering Doris Attinger brandishing a gun at her husband and his mistress before shooting and wounding the man. Adam finds himself assigned to the prosecution, which prompts Amanda to offer her services to Doris in female solidarity. The case becomes hotly debated, both in the courtroom and in the press, and what starts as a playful competition between colleagues pushes the couple toward an uncomfortable confrontation with their very real differences, especially as the case begins to turn in Amanda’s favor and she begins to succumb to Laurie’s wiles at home. As tensions build in the courtroom, the couple’s private life continues to unravel, and, during a climactic argument, a shimmering cushion resembling the upholstery in Laurie’s apartment is shown on a chair behind Amanda, foreshadowing her impending rejection of her role as subordinate wife. Attempting to make amends the following evening, Amanda is met with contempt from her husband, and the couple’s explosive argument topples extravagant planters in their apartment’s foyer.  

Soon after her argument with Adam, Amanda takes refuge in Laurie’s apartment as she evaluates the seemingly irreconcilable differences of her marriage. The modern sophistication of the space, and its association with the luxury of the urban lounge, is heightened by Liebes’s characteristic “play of brilliants,” [3] with the set lighting revealing the shimmering metallic yarns of the blinds and cushions. The decor of Laurie’s apartment—including a crowded gallery wall of modern art and a Buddhist statue placed in the corner of the room—also engages with the historical tastes of the Victorian aesthete and orientalist, who, in the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth century, constructed exoticized fantasy spaces as a means to subvert conventional notions of gender and propriety. [4] These coded references serve to characterize the gender expression of Laurie himself, who is heavily implied to be at least fluid in his sexual orientation. This trope highlights the subversion of the conventional gender roles that have plagued the Bonners’ marriage while also deploying Laurie’s queerness as a threat to normative bliss. The contribution of Liebes’s modernism, concerned with framing spaces designed for a new kind of living, coupled with visual references to the bachelor aesthete, which convey a subtle queering of societal expectations, reveals Amanda as more the philandering husband than the dutiful wife. Shortly thereafter, Amanda finds herself in the same position as her client’s husband when Adam, hiding behind the apartment’s curtains, witnesses his wife embracing Laurie and storms into the room wielding a gun (which is later revealed to be a candy replica). By stepping into a space enhanced by the modernist designs of Dorothy Liebes that resists the normative trappings of married domesticity, Amanda comes to a more nuanced understanding of both her own femininity and the gender politics of her marriage. 


[1] Leger Grindon, “Adam’s Rib (1949),” in The Hollywood Romantic Comedy, eds. B. K. Grand and L. Grindon, 117–28 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 

[2] Alexa Griffith Winton, “Vibrance and Luminosity: Textiles Designed for Light,” in A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, eds. Susan Brown and Alexa Griffith Winton (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023), 58. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Christopher Reed, Bachelor Japanists (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 5–8. 

color photograph of a living room with glimmering window blinds

Fig. 1 Production shot from the film Adam’s Rib (1949; Dir. George Cukor [American, 1899–1983]), showing the apartment of character Kip Lurie; Set design by Cedric Gibbons (American, 1890–1960); Blinds and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Dorothy Liebes Papers

color photograph of a living room with glimmering window blinds

Fig. 1 detail Production shot from the film Adam’s Rib (1949; Dir. George Cukor [American, 1899–1983]), showing the apartment of character Kip Lurie; Set design by Cedric Gibbons (American, 1890–1960); Blinds and upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Dorothy Liebes Papers

a woven blind sample with dark grey rods and colorful threads in shades of sage, coral, powder blue, and metallic

Although this Liebes blind sample is not an exact match from the movie, it shows similar weaving techniques and materials that were used for the set of Adam’s Rib.

Sample Card, 1948–50; Designed by Dorothy Wright Liebes (American, 1897–1972); Cotton, silk, viscose rayon, laminated aluminum yarn, wood; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of the Estate of Dorothy Liebes Morin, 1972-75-116

View of a room with a large, abstract mural on the left with an abstract swirling design in blues with metallic gold on a curved wall, kelly-green carpet, and an assortment of square tables with armchairs upholstered in medium blue.

Fig. 2 Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 1950; Interior design by Henry Dreyfuss (American, 1904–1972); Drapes laced with tiny electric lightbulbs and woven blinds designed by Dorothy Liebes; Henry Dreyfuss Archive, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1972-88-1; Image © Smithsonian Institution

Zachary Sauer

Zachary Sauer is a writer, researcher, and educator in the MA program in History of Design and Curatorial Studies offered jointly by Parsons School of Design, The New School and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He is currently a fellowship recipient in Cross-Platform Content at Cooper Hewitt and serves as a research assistant and teaching assistant at Parsons. Taking an expansive, interdisciplinary approach to visual culture studies, he has presented original research at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association and the Parsons School of Art and Design History and Theory graduate symposium. His writing has appeared in Heichi magazine, on Cooper Hewitt’s digital platforms, and will be featured in the forthcoming issue of Objective, the journal of the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program.